A Black History Month speech delivered at the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition Black History Month Breakfast, 2013
I bring you the greetings and well-wishes of the board of directors and members of the Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce who stand with you in your quest to bring businesses together to make sure the West Broadway Corridor is thriving and filled with sound and successful businesses.
When I was asked to speak today, I was told that the event was a breakfast in honor of Black History Month. And of course that got me thinking. I flashed back to so many moments in our Black history. It was difficult to narrow down one single period or topic. My thoughts raced to the Middle Passage in the 1660’s when our ancestors were brought here on slave ships. I found myself thinking about the 1760’s, 100 years later, when our ancestors toiled in the burning heat, picking cotton in the fields of southern plantations. Then, I smiled as I thought about the 1860’s, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law.
If what history tells us is true, from 1910 to 1930, there was a Great Migration where 1.6 million Black people moved from the south to the north, many believing they were traveling to “a land flowing with milk and honey.” History also tells us that there was a second Great Migration from 1940 to 1970 in which another 5 million of us uprooted ourselves from the south, headed north, and tried to get in on this luscious land of milk and honey. All in all, we are told that during the 20th Century about 6 million African Americans left the south and traveled north in search of that milk and honey.
When I think about this time, I image our great grandfathers and great grandmothers were preparing for the Great Migration, preparing to get up out of the south. Think about the excitement that probably ran through every bone in their bodies as they prepared to leave the southern states, a place where their mothers and fathers – and their mothers and fathers – and their mothers and fathers had known for so long. Yes, the time had come for our great grandfather’s and great grandmothers to travel to that place they had heard so much about: to a place that flowed with milk and honey.
In the book “Black America Past to Present”, author Marcia A. Smith wrote “The Great Migration set the stage for the emergence of a self-assured, sophisticated, and politically militant black leadership and the flowering of African American culture”. Our ancestors were deliberate in their pursuit. We are told that black people moved as individuals and as family units during the Great Migration. We are told they received no government help, yet, that didn’t matter because they were trying to escape rampant violence and lynching in the south as well as a lack of jobs and other opportunities. Just think about it. In 1900, there were only about 700,000 African Americans who lived outside the south; just 8 percent of the nation’s total black population, and by 1970, there were over 10.5 million black people living outside of the south, almost half the nation’s total black population.
Oh how excited our African American ancestors must have been as they boarded the carriages in the early 1900’s, and decades later, when they boarded the buses and trains that would carry them from the south to the north. We’re told most of them were so excited they left the few worldly possessions they had behind. So excited they could already taste the milk and honey.
Imagine how they must have felt two years before their trip, working by day and dreaming by night about that special place where they would make a new start, be able to take care of their families, educate themselves without repercussions, pay rent to a landlord instead of a plantation owner, buy a house, or God willing, someday, build a business of their own. And how they must have felt weeks prior to their departure date as they counted their money, praying they had saved enough to make the big trip.
We now know many of our ancestors did make it to the supposed promised- land; a few of them were actually able to taste the sweet sensation of milk and honey on the tips of their tongues. We now know that when they got here – in the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, some of our them were able to find work as laborers for big industries, find employment in local shops, buy homes, educate themselves, and, yes, even start a business.
But what was life really like for our people who came from the south and traveled north yearning to do so much? Had they really found a land that flowed with milk and honey?
A year before he died, in the year 2000, the Late Harry Davis talked about what life was like in the first half of the 20th Century for blacks who made it to Minnesota; what life was like for our people who planted their seeds of hope right here in north Minneapolis.
In an interview he gave in a documentary entitled, “We Knew Who We Were,” produced by the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, Harry Davis talked about north Minneapolis after our relatives arrived in north Minneapolis, saying, “There were Jewish boys (and) young African-American boys playing basketball together. We crossed racial and religious lines and so that’s why it was so unique.”
Harry Davis said north Minneapolis had been a place where historically persecuted people came together, saying, “The whole relationship of togetherness was developed because we were kind of equal in terms of economics.”
In a KARE 11 story, filed by reporter Scott Goldberg in 2007, Goldberg began his news report by saying, “Underneath the North Minneapolis that grabs headlines — the neighborhoods dealing with big-city problems — there is a community that, for decades and through generations, had the feel of something more simple.”
In his KARE 11 story, Goldberg interviewed Reva Rosenbloom, a Jewish lady who grew up at 16th and Oliver Avenue North and lived there until she was married in 1954. Reva Rosenbloom talked to KARE 11 about what it was like to grow up in north Minneapolis 50 years ago. She said, “Nobody locked their door, you could walk down the street and know everybody,” She said her parents owned a dry goods store on Plymouth Avenue, which was, at the time, a booming business district.” Referring to Plymouth Avenue she said, “And that’s where everybody did everything. It was like a small town. They didn’t go downtown. We didn’t have shopping malls.”
From what I have learned, there were Jewish businesses up and down Plymouth Avenue in the 1950’s and 60’s, but there were also small black businesses interspersed on Plymouth Avenue, along the old Highway 55 which is now Olson Memorial Highway, and some on West Broadway. Were these black businesses large businesses which employed hundreds of people? No. Most black businesses in the 1950’s and 60’s in north Minneapolis employed three or four people and the businesses struggled to get by. They were mixed in with the old scrap metal company owned by whites, the big stores like Pigley Wigley’s, and other larger grocery stores owned by Jewish people and white people. There were places like the Blue Note Jazz Club on Washington Avenue owned by black folks which was a huge gathering place in north Minneapolis for all sorts of people. But mostly, the black businesses were small barber shops, the Elks Club which is still here, and some smaller grocery stores, like the little grocery store in the basement of the housing projects on 8th and Bryant Avenue North, which was owned by a black man. At that grocery store, neighbors could get credit with the owner of the little grocery store to buy their food and goods.
The blacks who traveled here closer to the middle of the 20th Century didn’t experience the same upward mobility as the blacks who relocated in the beginning of the 20th Century. By the 1960’s, the jobs were drying up, the economy had slowed, Jim Crow laws were in full swing, housing and employment discrimination was rampant, and land that flowed with milk and honey clearly evaded most blacks who missed the first carriages, buses and trains here. In the late 1960’s, riots and civil disturbances began to rule the day. Clearly, the land that flowed with milk and honey had dried up.
The riots in the late 1960’s that ravaged the U.S. swept into north Minneapolis as well, burning down not just the black businesses on Plymouth Avenue, but all the businesses on Plymouth Avenue.
In a Minneapolis Star Tribune article written by Steve Brandt and Terry Collins in 2007, they looked back at a Minneapolis Star article dated July 25, 1967, where a 21-year old Harry (Spike) Moss is quoted as saying, “You tell them rioting is wrong when he doesn’t have his freedom . . . you wait two or three years while this young generation comes along. They see if you want anything, you got to take it.”
In the 2007 Minneapolis Star Tribune article, a then 61-year old Harry (Spike) Moss said, “We’re still fighting for our basic rights in this city, this state and in this country. Why? Because we’re still being denied equal opportunities – education and employment wise – that we have fought, bled, and shed tears over. Ask yourself, are you getting your fair share? That’s the number one concern, because you want the next generation to have it better than the last. The inequity that caused the problems back then could cause another riot today somewhere else. There will be a lot more anger this time though. And it won’t be orchestrated either. What happened on Plymouth Avenue 40 years ago wasn’t organized. It was spontaneous because the people were mad about the conditions already existing. “
Put another way, Elder Mahmoud El Kati told KARE 11’s Scott Goldberg this about the 60’s: “For a black person like my father to get an FHA loan was about as easy as getting a camel through the eye of a needle.” He told KARE 11 housing policy was just one of the hurdles lining up in front of blacks. He said in the interview, “What do you want to talk about? Education? Family? Religion? Entertainment? War? Peace? I mean, it’s the same question – black people will get the worst of it.”
When asked about the riots of the 1960’s, Liz Samuels, a lifelong black resident of north Minneapolis told KARE 11, “People were very unhappy with the things around the country, and so they reacted the way everybody else did around the country.”
This was followed by Al McFarlane saying in the same KARE 11 interview, “This was simply a statement of rejecting of this assigned second-class status.”
Alfred Babington Johnson commented in the interview, saying, “It was happening all over the country. The frustration was about how this system worked and started to respond.”
In this same interview, Harriet Kaplan, who was actually caught by a camera the day after the riot, as she was caught taking appliances out of Koval’s appliance store at Plymouth and James Avenue North, said, “They broke all the windows and they trampled through everything. It looked like people got along. Why the riot happened, I don’t know. “
Finally, Al McFarlane urged fellow north siders to take back a sense of ownership in the KARE 11 interview, when he said, “Ultimately, we have to determine our own future and create our own sense of who we are.”
By the time the 1960’s had arrived, what really made black folks mad was that most African Americans were relegated to the second-class status Al McFarlane was talking about in the interview. As an example, right down the street where the old Sumner-Olson Public Housing units used to be, over 50 percent of all adults who lived in the Sumner Olson public housing projects were working. It’s just that they were stuck in jobs working as dishwashers, doormen, or in sewing factories making minimum wage that was raised to $1.00 an hour in 1967.
So yes, the 1960’s in North Minneapolis was a turbulent and storied time. It was this period that really should give us all pause.
I believe the 1960’s in north Minneapolis are very instructive about where black people have been as it relates to black businesses, black employment, and black life in general. And I believe the 1960’s are very relevant as to where we are—and where we all may choose to go—as people who care about and love our community.
And so, here we are, in 2013, some 122 years after black people began the Great Migration seeking the land that flowed with milk and honey and some 46 years after things blew up across the nation and right here in north Minneapolis when black folks realized there was really very little milk and very little honey to be had.
Well, what has changed? What is different today? North Minneapolis is still standing. Gone are the many Jewish businesses that lined the streets. North Minneapolis is still dotted with some black businesses. Pigley Wigley’s has been replaced by Cub Foods. And many black folks are either still working minimum wage, are under-employed, or unemployed. What has really changed?
Well, let me first answer that question by saying one thing that has changed is that you are here- the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition is here – in this room, over 100 businesses strong, committed to making life better for those people who were born here, migrated here, traveled here, or just plain landed here with no other place to go. You’re here trying to make a better life for your family and the families that will come after you. And you’re here, having already made a dynamic difference improving our cityscape, as it relates to building businesses in north Minneapolis, keeping the doors of existing businesses open, and dreaming into reality a better day when there is nobody under-employed or unemployed among us.
In my opinion, the real questions today, and during this Black History Month, are:
1) How do we honor those people who came to Minnesota during the Great Migration, leaving so much of their history behind, seeking a better life for themselves and their families?
2) How do we ensure that once people are living among us in the 21st Century, they are able to find outlets to become educated, work in good jobs at good wages, own their own businesses, and be powered by inspiration and motivation instead of the fear, anger, and rage that plagued the 1960’s?
3) How do we ensure that nobody feels like a second-class citizen in our midst?
4) And how do we create a future that includes milk and honey, where human dignity and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness exist for all people, no matter where they are from, who find themselves standing in our midst?
Friends, I believe we can reach our mutual goals of building a better community for our families, for our neighbors, and for ourselves by having another Great Migration. Not one where we travel a great distance by carriage, bus or train; but instead a Great Migration where we travel afar using our minds.
• A Great Migration in our minds where we concentrate as much on a diversity of new and dynamic ideas as we do on the diversity of skin color;
• A Great Migration in our heads as we gently reject calling bad or average ideas good ideas;
• A Great Migration in our homes as we push our children to reject the soft bigotry of low expectations, instead telling our children they can own a business, not just work at a business;
• A Great Migration in our schools as we stop lying to our young people telling them they don’t have to learn the King’s English, or how to do basic math and Algebra;
• A Great Migration on our streets as we seek to tap the many talents of our young people or nudge forward the people who may be temporarily lost among us;
• And, a Great Migration in our resolve to reject the language of “us vs. them” wherever it rears its ugly head, instead finding new and better ways we can all work together.
At the Minnesota Black Chamber of Commerce, we are committed to standing with the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition for the long-haul until our mutual work is done.
This year, the Chamber will continue to work to strengthen African American and other small businesses on three main fronts: Working to create financial capital for new and existing businesses, working to ensure that Minnesota black families have as much business background as possible, and working to ensure that we have a ready and willing reserve of talented, educated, and skilled human capital. We will continue to traverse the State Capitol hallways and offices lifting up the importance of small businesses and the impact they have on inner cities; and we will encourage entrepreneurship in our families, in our churches, in our schools and at every corner and turn.
We will work to ensure that our entrepreneurs are aware of transformative technology and how to apply it to a global market. Most of all, we will work toward creating thousands of jobs and to increase personal wealth among folks who have been here for a short time or a long time. I invite each of you to stand with the Chamber in all the work we do.
In closing, I ask you to continue to encourage each person you meet to take a Great Migration of their own by reaching for the stars, realizing their hopes and dreams, building their skills and using their talents. I thank those people who came here decades before us who were committed to building a better life. I thank those warriors of the 1960’s on whose great, strong and broad shoulders we stand.
And I thank each and every one of you for inviting me here today! May you all be blessed in the work you do and may you continue the great work of the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition!